Deconfliction strategy dominates Russian-Turkish relations in Syria 

Elements from the Turkish army and Russian military police performing joint military drills on the M4 international highway - 30 April 2021 (ANNA)

Elements from the Turkish army and Russian military police performing joint military drills on the M4 international highway - 30 April 2021 (ANNA)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

On 29 April, Russian warplanes launched airstrikes on opposition-held areas in northern Syria, targeting the perimeter of a Turkish military base in Aleppo’s northern countryside.

This attack was one of many in which Russian and Syrian regime forces targeted opposition areas, breaching the Moscow ceasefire agreement signed between the regime and the opposition under Russian auspices on 5 March 2020.

However, the latest Russian airstrike, which was reported by Russian media in detail, is the first-ever on Turkish military bases in northwestern Syria.

Few hours before the Russian aerial bombardment, the Russian military police carried out joint military training with the Turkish army on the M4 international highway linking Aleppo and Lattakia governorates through southern Idlib. The two parties also conducted the longest joint patrol east of the Euphrates on 1 May.

Russian-Turkish common interests

Turkish and Russian interests in Syria are dramatically opposed. While Turkey supported armed opposition factions and was involved in military clashes with the Syrian regime in late February and early March 2020, Russia backed the regime and its intervention in Syria was the main factor preventing the regime from an inevitable downfall. Russia stood by the regime’s side in every United Nations (UN) session held to incriminate the regime and used its veto right several times to protect it. 

The negotiating table brought together the Turkish and Russian sides under the Moscow agreement in March 2020 to halt battles in northwestern Syria between the regime and the opposition.

On 22 October 2019, Russia and Turkey signed the Sochi deal that stipulated ending Eastern Euphrates battles between the Turkish Army backed by the Syrian National Army (SNA) on the one hand and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other hand.

In January 2017, Russia, Turkey, and Iran launched the Astana peace talks to end the Syrian conflict. The guarantors held 15 rounds of talks, which have contributed significantly to changing the field control map of “de-escalation” zones, agreed upon through the talks.

Turkish-Russian separate blocks  

Head of the Information Unit at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaban, pointed out that Russians’ strategy with Turkey in Syrian territories is based on dealing with conflicting issues as separate matters.

The Russians adopted this strategy on many occasions, for example, when Russia bombed oil markets and makeshift oil refineries in the environs of al-Bab and Jarablus, north of Aleppo, Russian-Turkish joint patrols were still being carried out to the east of the Euphrates without being affected by the attack.

According to the Syria Civil Defense (SCD), the Russian bombardment of the makeshift oil markets and refineries on 5 March with seven Tochka missiles left four civilians dead, including a volunteer from the SCD and 42 injured civilians.

The Russian attack set more than 200 fuel tanks to blaze and damaged a large number of makeshift oil refineries, besides damaging an SCD’s excavator truck and destroying another in the fires.

Another example of the deconfliction mechanisms adopted by Russia and Turkey in Syria manifests in the relative calmness between the two sides’ forces in the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in northwestern al-Hasakah province. These two areas are part of the Peace Spring Operation territories where Turkey launched a cross-border military offensive to the east of the Euphrates River to limit the influence of the SDF in northern Syria. Meanwhile, Idlib and Aleppo governorates continue to witness considerable tension and skirmishes between the two sides.

Shaban told Enab Baladi that skirmishes between the two sides often deliver powerful messages, and this type of tactic suits Turkey, which relies on settling things in one frontline to strengthen its position in another. In fact, Turkey endeavors to block the impact of complexities in one territory from affecting its relation with Russia in another territory in Syria. 

Russian bombardment here and joint Russian-Turkish patrols there

In the recent airstrike on opposition areas, Russian warplanes dropped Russian-made FOTAB bombs on the perimeter of a Turkish military base in rural Aleppo on the evening of 29 April, the Russian Spring (Rusvesna.su) account published via Telegram.

The attack with “FOTAB 100-80” bombs obstructed the opposition forces’ movement and brought their plans to failure, the account posted. 

Russian FOTAB 100-80 bombs are designed for night bombing operations and produce an instant intense bright flash to illuminate terrain at night for aerial photography. They have a burning time of 2.2 to 3.5 minutes and a light intensity of 22,000 to 700,000 candlepower, according to the Collective Awareness to Unexploded Ordnance (CAT-UXO) website.

Another Russian aerial attack targeted a military point for the SNA located between the Os’os and Kafr Khasher military axes in Aleppo countryside. The airstrike coincided with a patrol conducted at military posts on the contact lines between the SNA and the SDF, a commander from the SNA, told Enab Baladi.

The targeted point is situated between the opposition-controlled city of Azaz and Tel Rifat city that is under the control of the SDF, near the lines of contact between the two parties.

Russia used images taken by reconnaissance aircraft and published by Russian pro-government Analytical Network News Agency (ANNA) one day before the latest airstrike as a pretext to carry out an attack against opposition factions which Russia claimed were preparing for offensives against the Syrian regime forces. 

The ANNA reported that opposition forces “deployed a rocket launcher, military vehicles, 120-mm mortars, and heavy military equipment to outposts in the villages of Banin and al-Fatira of southern Idlib.”

The regime and its Russian ally repeatedly bomb opposition areas. The Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG) documented 208 ceasefire breaches by the regime and Russian forces, who carried out aerial and ground bombardments targeting opposition-held areas during the first 14 days of Ramadan.

Suspension of joint patrols not preventing Russian-Turkish military drills 

On the same day that Russian warplanes launched an airstrike on a Turkish military base, Turkish forces and the Russian military police conducted a joint military drill on the M4 highway, south of Idlib. The exercise was carried out despite the cessation of Russian-Turkish joint patrols, stipulated in the Moscow ceasefire agreement, since September 2020.

The military drills included maneuvers in the event of sniper attacks or anti-tank-guided missiles against the joint patrols. They also involved training on the mechanism of mine detection and evacuation operations.

On 14 August 2020, Russia announced the suspension of joint patrols due to what it called “constant provocations of militants” before resuming patrols on 17 of the same month.

During July and August 2020, joint patrol convoys were targeted three times. A military vehicle was hit in a blast, and an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near a joint patrol, causing casualties among Turkish and Russian soldiers and damage to military vehicles.

In September 2020, Russia suspended its participation in patrols conducted on the M4 highway arguing that “Turkey is unable to protect the patrols while roaming the M4 highway.” Still, the Turkish forces continued to patrol on the M4 alone since 15 September 2020.

Turkish and Russian forces conducted first-ever joint military drills in al-Trinbe town in Idlib countryside as part of cooperation to repel “armed groups,” as announced by the director of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria in Hmeimim airbase, Major General Alexander Grynkiewicz, in early September 2020.

The training included “joint targeting operations of subversive guerrilla groups refusing reconciliation, withdrawal of damaged military equipment, and how to provide medical assistance to the injured.”

Two joint military drills followed the al-Trinbe exercise, the first of which was conducted on 5 September 2020, simulating a repulsion of attacks targeting military convoys while patrolling on the M4 highway.

The second joint military drill took place on 22 September 2020. It aimed to enhance coordination between Turkish and Russian forces during joint patrols and included communication signals training among patrol members for emergency cases, such as armed attacks on joint patrols.

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